Father Joe - Joseph Williamson MBE (1895-1988)

 Much of this information comes from Father Joe: The Autobiography of Joseph Williamson of Poplar & Stepney (Hodder & Stoughton 1963), with additional comments from his son Tony (mentioned below), to whom we express our particular thanks. He also wrote Friends of Father Joe - Pages from His Diary (Hodder & Stoughton 1965), and Josephine Butler, the Forgotten Saint (Faith Press 1977). His papers (1950-69) are deposited at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

Early life
Joseph Williamson was born at 75 Arcadia Street, Poplar, where his widowed mother, on whom he doted all his life (calling her one of nature's greatest ladies), brought up eight children (three others died in infancy) in two rooms. She could not read or write, and relied on one of her daughters to deal with correspondence. The boys slept in two beds in a tiny room; I can't remember where the others slept. When Joe was 3, his father had been crushed to death in the mud of East India Docks in a shipbreaking accident, when a boiler collapsed. Mother refused to let the younger children go to Langley House, the East London orphanage, and never managed to qualify for charity despite their desperate poverty since the children and their clothes were always clean (Good Gawd, soap's cheap enough, she said) and they had boots - of a sort. She got by taking in mounds of washing and ironing, and starved herself when food was short. But Joe insisted it was a happy home, despite the fact that one brother was sent to a reformatory (where he was unjustly birched) and two others later took refuge in drink. He was rightly proud of his roots.

On his first day at St Saviour's School he was amazed when Fr Dolling gave him a bun and a mug of hot milk - though strangely the family never qualified for the free dinners he arranged. Joe was a poor scholar, but enjoyed schooldays, and especially the annual camps at Broadstairs. Fr Dawson, the curate, enlisted Joe in the choir and as a server. It was while he was serving that he heard a voice telling him that he was to be a priest - which he thought impossible, given his situation. Indeed, at confirmation classes Fr Dawson asked the other four boys if they had ever considered ordination - but not Joe.

After school, he spent six months in service, as a page boy at Radlett - hard work and good food, but he was sacked after six months. He then worked as a clerk at Cubitts, and at the Civil Service Stores in Haymarket, with a short spell working at the home of a suffragette in Southminster, but this did not work out: he was too ready to speak his mind, and, being short-sighted, was clumsy. (His eyesight remained a problem all his life.) These posts had been arranged by Fr Dawson. His successor, Fr Lambert, also took Joe under his wing and became a kind of guardian. 
F.R. Barry (later Bishop of Southwell) was his chaplain for a time. Fr Joe said in his autobigraphy that when he signed up for the Army in 1914, serving in France, he found the routine, and the regular food and pay, congenial, and missed it when he was demobbed. However, in the (unpublished) first draft he says that he hated his time in France and was terrified; he was bitter about Earl Haig's command which ordered thousands of men 'over the top' to their deaths, and considered him to be a criminal. He had great respect for Philip 'Tubby' Clayton and the help TocH brought to the troops, and for the ministry of those like 'Woodbine Willie', the Revd Geoffrey Studdart Kennedy, who stood up for the men against the officers and the system.

Journey to ordination
In 1917 an interview was arranged with Bishop Burrows about his future. 'Learn a trade and go to the mission field as a layman', he was told. Back home, Fr Lambert suggested he spoke to the new Vicar of St Saviour's, who had served with distinction in the war, and later became Bishop of London. When he opened the door, Joe told him who he was, and very quietly said he felt he was called to the ministry. He looked down at me from a great height, for he had the advantage of the vicarage doorstep as well as his own six foot odd. He said, 'How interesting', and I think he said, 'Good morning'. Anyhow, he shut the door. But then he saw Guy Vernon Smith who was interviewing ex-servicemen with a vocation, and was sent, with a government grant, to Knutsford Ordination Test School (housed in a former prison): a happy fifteen months attempting in vain to improve his basic education. F.R. Barry, his former chaplain, was the respected 'Chief', but refused to let Joe go on to college. He turned down an offer to become a travelling gospeller in Sascatchewan (with his own caravan), and an invitation to go to Melanesia; but, miraculously, the Bishop's Commissary, Fr Corner, instead arranged for him to go to St Augustine's College Canterbury, where he was a student from 1921 to 1925. One of his 
fellow students, and a lifelong friend, was George Appleton, who did great work at St Botolph Aldgate when Joe was in the neighbouring parish of St Paul Dock Street, and later became Archbishop of Jerusalem; he edited several widely-used anthologies of prayer.

Early ministry and the following years
Joe was ordained by the Bishop of London to serve a title at St Michael & St George Fulwell – a poor area, deemed suitable because he was 'one of them', but the vicar showed little interest and left him to his own devices. They had a major falling-out over his priesting (disingenuously, Fr Joe had asked if he might offer his first mass at Poplar church, and the vicar refused to present him as a candidate) and he left under a cloud. (While he was there, a spinster left him some money, with which he bought a cottage for his mother at Benfleet, but within a few weeks she was back in Poplar, and stayed there until her death at the age of 79 in 1942.) In due course, at the Bishop of London's request, Fr Joe transferred to St James Norlands in Kensington (1926-28), to work the slum area of the parish with Fr Lambert. Here he met Audrey (who had trained as a Norland children's nurse) and married her: she gave him devoted and indispensable support for all that followed. (After her death, he remarried - his second wife is still living.)

It is curious that for the next 25 years Joe was away from the deprived urban context he knew so well, and where his particular gifts could be deployed. His autobiography says little about his four years abroad, at the Cathedral Church in Grahamstown (1928-32). He tried to get a job on St Helena; instead, he became Rector of Fenny Drayton near Nuneaton (1932-34), with a 23-roomed rectory and no running water, and a church in disrepair. They moved with relief after eighteen months to Shimpling with Alpheton in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, living at Shimplingthorne Rectory, though here too they faced dilapidated buildings: Alpheton church, in a farmyard, was in a poor state and he had to stand in water to conduct services. The diocese suggested he should cover the roof with chicken wire to guard against falling slates, but he set about raising money for a full restoration - finally paid off through fund-raising when he became a Chaplain to the Forces (1940-46, then becoming an honorary chaplain). In his biography he says little about his war service, other than that his successful introduction of 'free and frank' talks (a precursor to 'Padre's Hour') proved that his limited formal education was no barrier - if anything, the reverse. In 1949 he became Rector of Little Dunham & Vicar of Sporle with Great and Little Palgrave, in Norwich diocese, spending much of his time working on the church as a carpenter and bricklayer. These country livings were odd settings for an East Ender! But his son Tony believes (in the light of his own experience) that these varied experiences were necessary to build up his self-confidence to enable him to return to the East End: 
as he says, it is not easy to get respect and hold your own, without much education, among your own people - as Jesus found and had to move from Nazareth to Galilee!

At St Paul Dock Street
In 1952 a friend put his name forward for St Paul Dock Street with St Mark Whitechapel, saying 'It's about time you returned to London'. (In later life, he often commented that he was never offered a parish by a bishop, but only by patrons!) Though a 'Catholic' (but not in the 'party' sense - see below), he was appointed to what had been an Evangelical church, and got to grips with the poverty and deprivation of the area, and set about restoring the church. The ship's weathervane which topped the spire was taken down for cleaning and regilding, and he toured it round the parish on a cart fundraising.

Mindful of his own childhood at St Saviour's, he valued the fact that St Paul's had a church school, and had a special care for it. Princess Margaret came to open the new school hall in 1962. (Some years later, when St Paul's closed, the restored ship [pictured above] was removed from the church spire and mounted on the outside wall of the hall - appropriately, though without official permission, prompting a firm rebuke from the then-Rector of St George's.) Six years earlier, in 1956, the Queen Mother had visited the parish on St George's Day to unveil a memorial window to Admiral Woods.

He introduced a Good Friday walk of witness through the streets (which became a deanery event). Cable Street, a thoroughfare that had become world-famous as a result of the riots 30 years ealier, and in his time had been taken over by a bewildering variety of African and European all-night cafés, knocking shops, robber landlords and drug dealers, became a true Via Dolorosa. He was a keen visitor, and always ready (with Audrey's help, and that of his now-adult children) to welcome people into the vicarage. His son Tony (holding the cross in the second picture) was ordained in 1961 and served as a worker priest (one of the relatively few to make sense of this vocation), a Labour councillor and Diocesan Director of Education for Oxford before his retirement. He and his family revisited the area a few years ago to walk the streets and see how much life has changed hereabouts, and visited the current occupants of the former Vicarage.

There were two linked concerns which dominated Fr Joe's ten years at St Paul's.

He was appalled by, and documented, the slum housing conditions of the parish, and wrote many letters to the authorities. He took on the slum landlords who were rife in the area. He challenged Henry Brooke, the housing minister, to walk round the parish with him - He would be sickened and shocked. On one occasion, in his last year at St Paul's, he even swallowed his ardent royalist and anti-communist principles by encouraging church folk to vote for the atheist and communist councillor Solly Kaye, after he had craftily saved Eileen Mansions from falling into their hands. Pictured in 1962 are 28 Heneage Street (off Brick Lane) and the communal tap at 23 Cable Street; and Fr Joe talking to mothers in the street.

But it was as the 'prostitute's padre' that he came into the public eye. He was indignant, and outspoken, particularly in the monthly parish magazine The Pilot, about the rise of public indecency. This was the era of the 1957 Wolfenden Report (on human sexuality) and the 1959 Street Offences Act (which drew attention to the way in which girls, some of them very young, were trapped into 'moral danger'). They operated from the many cafés and clubs along Cable Street which flourished until they were demolished under the Graces Alley Compulsory Purchase Order of 1963 (partly because of Father Joe's campaigning). The pimps were Arab, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Maltese but many of the girls were Irish or Welsh. Pictured right is the corner of Cable Street and Ensign Street; prostitutes and their clients off Cable Street in the 1950s; and Fr Joe walking the parish.

He had a vision: suddenly a woman called out to me 'You walk past me because I'm a bloody prostitute, don't you?' I turned to her and saw that she was young and very beautiful. Later I realised she was old and ugly with a razor-scarred face. But my vision was of the lovely girl she had been before prostitution destroyed her. Her name had to be Mary. It was a message from God. I had to help women like her.

He resolved to do something about it. Church House in Wellclose Square became the base for rehabilitation or (as he described it) 'rescue' work, providing a home for up to six residents at a time. Nora Neal, who had been working at St George-in-the-East, joined him in 1957, and in the following year, as the work expanded, Daphne Jones (who came from, and later returned to, the Poplar team). The Bishop of Stepney dedicated Church House with full ceremony .... every room visited and blessed with prayer and incense.  Fr Joe's contacts provided some funding, but wider support followed after his sermon at St Paul's Cathedral in 1961. In all this he was assisted by his churchwarden, Frank Rust, who was a staff photographer on the Daily Mail and knew how to set up photos for the media and get coverage; he lived in Forest Gate but maintained his links with St Paul throughout these years and beyond.

He had more or less invited himself to preach at the cathedral: it was to be a great set piece, speaking out about the evils of homelessness and prostitution, and the work at Church House. Having recovered from an attack of glaucoma in his one good eye, he took a full fortnight off to prepare for it; he was petrified at the prospect, and of coping with the media attention he hoped would follow. The Dean, he wrote, was kindness itself: ‘speak for as long as you need’, he said – dangerous advice given the length of what he had prepared and the fact that another service followed. The Archdeacon was chilly, since Fr Joe was critical of the bishops. The media certainly went to town, with a press conference that day and a string of stories in the coming week. The man who long before had been written off as 'unsuitable' for ordination had made his mark. Funds came in, and in his time at St Paul's over a thousand young women passed through the doors of Church House. (See here for Church House today.)

Another house was added, in Delancy Street (near King's Cross) - later handed over to Centre Point - and two more, in Essex and Birmingham. When he retired in 1962, he initially stayed on in the parish, close to the Vicarage, unable to let go of 'The Work' (as he called it), but then moved to High Spray, West Wittering, where he continued to campaign and fund-raise until his death. He was awarded an MBE in 1975. A pamphlet The Wellclose Square Fund 1955-1980 was published to mark its 25th anniversary - it has since been merged with other funds.

David Winter, former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, recalls sitting opposite a cassocked priest on a train in Kent in the early 1960s. The priest talked animatedly about his work in the slums of east London, particularly in rescuing victims of the sex trade. Oh, a bit like Fr Joe, Winter remarked. Roaring with laughter, the priest replied I am Fr Joe! (Church Times 21 January 2011).


How to assess his ministry? He was a faithful parish priest who had proved the hierarchy wrong about his capabilities. He was much-loved by many, and a source of exasperation to others. Fr Ken Leech, who worked with him in the 1950s, commented (in a 2006 talk given at the merger of UNLEASH and Housing Justice) Williamson, like Josephine Butler, who inspired him, and about whom he wrote a small book, used the language of 'rescue' constantly, yet he saw the close link between prostitution and bad housing. He campaigned so relentlessly against slum conditions that he got a good deal of his parish neighbourhood demolished*. However, Williamson was not politically astute, and often failed to make wider connections.

* Bulldozers are the only way to clear Stepney of its shocking vice, Fr Joe said. In a 2010 lecture for the Heritage of London Trust on 'This Unfortunate and Ignored Locality: the Lost Squares of Stepney' Will Palin lamented that Fr Joe stigmatised the whole area, and did not discriminate between the true slums and centres of prostitution, such as Sander Street, photographed by Frank Rust [right  in 1957, showing Edith Ramsay
, and for this article of 1 March 1961 in the Daily Mail], and Wellclose and Prince's Squares, in the vicinity of the church and its school, which could have been saved and restored, as happened in parts of Spitalfields. With hindsight, we can argue that a 'clean sweep' of these areas was the wrong answer; but at the time there was little will to save these squares on heritage grounds when social conditions were so desperate.

Elsewhere - in a review of Empty Tabernacles: Twelve lost churches of London (Michael Yelton, Anglo-Catholic History Society) Ken Leech rightly expresses surprise that St Paul's is included among their number, because of Father Joe, for Joe was not really an Anglo-Catholic in the 'party' sense, although he was inspired in childhood by Fr Dolling. He had no interest in the niceties of ceremony, nor in attitudes to the Church of South India*. He was an intensely prayerful priest, committed to the daily mass, and the care of the people; but the neighbouring Anglo-Catholics did not know what to make of him, for their concerns and connections were different.  

His son Tony agrees, though also comments that
the sacrament of holy communion was extremely important to him, and that he insisted on taking the ablutions immediately after administering communion [see recent discussion about TARPing - 'taking the ablutions at the right place' - in Praxis] and upset the hierarchy during the war by forcing the cancellation of an army parade service, which was to have included  inter-communion.

* This is a reference to the pioneering ecumenical regrouping of Christian denominations as a united church, which some Anglo-Catholics believed breached apostolic order. As John Betjeman recalls, notices appeared even in the remotest rural church porches with the puzzling and improbable warning 'Members of the Church of South India are not admitted to communion in this parish'.  A copy was prominently displayed at St Mary Cable Street.

Was Father Joe aware that the first English home for work with prostitutes, the Magdalen Hospital, was based a short distance away from Church House, Wellclose Square from 1758 to 1769? Its underlying philosophy and methods were quite different, but it was just as much in the public eye. The comparisons are intriguing.
A century later, a few yards away in the other direction, in Betts Street, there was also a 'Refuge and Receiving Home', established in 1879 for 'rescue and preventative work among girls and children'. This was run by the Bridge of Hope Mission and linked to 'cottage training homes' at Chingford, to which girls who had been abused or become pregnant were taken.
Ministry to streetworkers continues in the East End, particularly at St Matthew Bethnal Green.

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